UM Study Seeks to Create Smarter Building Design

Fri April 27, 2012 - Midwest Edition

Buildings account for about 72 percent of U.S. electrical consumption, according to principal researchers Jerome Lynch and Geoffrey Thun.
Buildings account for about 72 percent of U.S. electrical consumption, according to principal researchers Jerome Lynch and Geoffrey Thun.

DETROIT (AP) The nation could start to see the walls of its offices, businesses and homes become smarter as a two-year University of Michigan research-and-development project starts bearing fruit, participants say.

This fall, a team of computer, environmental and computer scientists, as well as architects and natural resources specialists launch their project to design, test and build new systems for the “envelopes” or outsides of buildings. These systems would combine the widespread use of sensors, novel construction materials and utility control software.

The result, the researchers say, could be technologies capable of cutting the carbon footprint created by the huge power demands buildings place on the nation’s electrical grid.

The Integrated Responsive Building Envelopes project is getting $535,000 directly from the university, and the goal is to extend the work in future years through outside grants.

Buildings account for about 72 percent of U.S. electrical consumption, despite the existence of technology that could enable many structures to give back more power to the electrical grid than they draw through features such as solar panels, according to principal researchers Jerome Lynch and Geoffrey Thun.

Reducing that demand could significantly cut down on burning of carbon-based fuels — such as coal and natural gas — that contribute to global warming, they say.

Thun, an associate professor of architecture and one of the two principal researchers, said the construction industry typically lags behind other fields in putting new technologies into production. But he said he is optimistic that it won’t take a generation for ideas the group will test to be used.

“Some of these systems are probably 10 years out from the market,” Thun told the Associated Press in a telephone interview. Typically, construction breakthroughs start in commercial and industrial buildings, and, “With that, they eventually translate to residential use.”

Thun and Lynch, an associate professor of engineering, are heading a team that includes seven other faculty members and researchers, plus graduate and post-graduate students from a range of disciplines.

“Together, they will explore the potential of intelligent building exteriors, or envelopes, that are capable of monitoring weather, daylight and occupant use to manage heating, cooling and lighting,” Paul Gargaro of the University of Michigan Energy Institute, said in a March article about the project on the university’s Web site.

While building designers have improved the energy performance of buildings in recent decades through insulation and window design, the systems are typically passive and static, keeping heat or cold from leaking out.

Thun said that building systems can become more dynamic and responsive to changes in light by adding temperature, light and humidity sensors that are linked to digital control systems. He also said builders could use materials that are capable of storing energy and releasing it as needed.

“We’re looking to provide hybrid building systems that are intelligent and responsive, by taking advantage of multi-functional materials that change their performance characteristics in response to various climatic conditions,” he said.

The research team plans to test a range of materials and assemblies that can be used in building envelopes, Gargaro said, possibly including transparent and opaque materials, glazing and pressurized film systems and “new types of green, ductile concrete.”

“This project’s scope is very bold and has the potential to break a lot of old paradigms,” Lynch said in a statement. “People have talked about these ideas as if they are 20 years away from becoming reality. We think the time is now, and that’s what this project aims to prove.”

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